Stephen Bilboe, Sales & Marketing Director of WCBS, discusses how Independent Schools have adapted throughout COVID-19, and what this means post-pandemic.

The effect of COVID-19 on the Independent and International school market

The pandemic has hit all aspects of education; in the past year we’ve seen 30 UK Independent schools close their doors permanently as a direct result of COVID-19. Schools have had to give discounts on their fees, revenue from boarding and trips has been halted, and income has ultimately taken a hit.

Whilst schools that have been the worst affected are typically smaller schools that have been struggling with admissions for a while, who haven’t been able to widen their catchment net – the hit to income has been the final blow for schools under pressure, especially with school fees rising approx. 3-4% over the past decade.

As a result the market has seen a change of focus, with schools delivering value to parents and education to students.

Adapting fast to protect reputation

When a parent is being charged £20,000-30,000+ in fees, schools have had to deliver outstanding levels of teaching to warrant such an ask, especially when delivering to their students remotely, at home and not on campus.

All schools have had to shift to online learning and live lessons, and have adapted well to remote learning. The standard has been remarkable with Independent and International schools, where the stakes and expectation is even higher, what with the ask of fees.

Due to the reduction on fee income the pandemic has forced Independent schools to focus on their admissions process even more. Without the luxury of open days, they can’t just rely on a good telephone manner, a beautiful prospectus and families walking through the school gate. Schools in our market now have to firmly position themselves and compete so that they’re attractive to parents and make sure that pupil numbers are coming through.

EdTech has remoulded today’s expectations

All schools have an online learning platform today, but a lot of schools have had to shift to office 365 and Microsoft teams to deliver their lessons.

In terms of admissions, schools are focusing on Admissions CRMs. Instead of taking enquiries by phone from an admissions office, and logging details on a spreadsheet, Independent and International schools see the need for a more analytical and sophisticated approach by using automated emails and communications systems. They understand that to survive and thrive, their school must operate as a business.

Adoption of technology has increased massively, creating a focus on Cloud technologies and system efficiencies, especially like HR systems.

Virtual tours are a new feature for many schools, where they haven’t been able to rely on inviting visitors. Schools have invested more into their website and online perception, admissions in the form of CRMs and any tool that can help them facilitate an online learning experience in the best possible way that justifies that fee income, has been high on their priority list.

Thinking commercially is paramount

Our market hasn’t been forced to be as commercially minded as they have been until now. Local Independent schools may have typically had a steady flow of pupil enrolment from their local catchment or wider afield through organic growth, but now there is greater competition. Fees have been rising steadily, but salary increases haven’t kept pace – we are seeing Independent schools refining their focus to take more of a commercial view, and maintaining that admissions funnel is critical now.

From an analytical perspective, the likes of Boards of Governors, Headmasters and Directors of Admissions are all interested in what their enrolments are going to look like next year. If they’re going to succeed in moving forward, they need to know what their numbers are. Independent and International schools are not only interested in the revenue they’re going to get this year, but the revenue they’re going to see in the next five years, and the lifetime value.

One of the things we’ve seen from COVID-19 is a lot of hardship funds being raised, so where parents have struggled with their income over this challenging time, some schools that have strong alumni have been able to raise hardship funds to support other families that are trying to meet the needs of fees while income has been hit.

The future for of technology in Independent Education

The future of EdTech in the Independent and International school market will certainly be an interesting journey. We’ve seen consolidation in the market in the last few years with a lot of acquisitions taking place. I am intrigued to see what we get from that, whether it’s a one stop shop and consolidation of offerings, which will ultimately leave less choice. My view is that the best position for the market is for it to remain agnostic and allow schools to choose best of breed where necessary but through an integrated solution.

With this forced adoption of online teaching, it will be interesting to see if more schools look to follow in Harrow School’s footsteps and launch an online school. Their online sixth form operates at a reduced rate and is more scalable and cost effective to operate. This may even be considered as an addition to or instead of an International sister school.

In terms of direction, data and insight will be crucial. Having products that are in the cloud, typically cloud native, that EdTech firms can pull insights from for future developments and allow for proactive intervention.

Stephen has 10+ years’ experience in the FinTech and EdTech sectors. He is the Sales & Marketing Director of WCBS, who has invested £5m into their latest development, HUBmis, which launched in October 2020.

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